Uruguay captain Diego Godin is a physical embodiment of the dilemmas circling around the mind of coach Diego Alonso. How can he use the veterans in his squad at the World Cup?
Like Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, Fernando Muslera and Martin Caceres, Godin is on his way to a fourth World Cup. Unlike them he goes all the way back to the 2007 Copa America, the first tournament in the epic reign of coach Oscar Washington Tabarez, during which Uruguay made an unexpected return to football’s top table.
Godin has played a record 159 games for his country, and for the last eight years he has been the captain. He is a modern leader, thoughtful and composed, but every bit as firm in his convictions as the tub thumping skippers of old. His centre-back play is similar. Godin is uncompromising.
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For nine years he was a symbol of Diego Simeone’s ferociously committed Atletico Madrid. But at his best his work has always been unflashy, based as much on intelligence and timing as on aggression.The big question, though, is this — not far away from his 37th birthday, can he still perform at anything like his best?
This year has not been kind to him. After a decade and a half in Europe (Villareal, Atletico and more briefly Inter Milan and Cagliari), Godin went home to South America at the start of 2022. He joined Brazilian double winners Atletico Mineiro, with the aim of helping them win the Copa Libertadores. The club had lost Paraguayan centre-back Junior Alonso to Russia, and Godin was seen as his replacement.
But as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, Alonso returned, and Godin was surplus to requirements. After just nine games he decided to move on, and joined Velez Sarsfield in Argentina, where his compatriot Alexander Medina was in charge.
But here, too, he was out of luck. A knee problem meant that he hardly got onto the field. Godin chose to take a break for treatment in the hope of being ready for Qatar, and he joins up with Uruguay’s World Cup squad with very little recent football behind him.
And even before the injury worries Godin was already showing signs of creaking. Tabarez was finally forced out at the end of last year at the end of a nightmare run of fixtures — Brazil away, Argentina home and away and the dreaded trip to extreme altitude to face Bolivia. Uruguay lost all four, three of them heavily, and with injuries to his long term partner Jose Maria Gimenez and Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo, Godin’s lack of pace was cruelly exposed.
In came new coach Diego Alonso with a quick fix for the team’s problems. He switched Godin from the left-sided centre-back to the right. He was protected by Araujo playing as a defensive right-back, and by holding midfielder Mathias Vecino parked in front of him. The defensive unit, then, was set up to ensure that Godin was not caught in open space, and aided by a relatively easy run of fixtures, Uruguay picked up the victories they needed to book their place in Qatar.
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But what does Alonso do now? Much depends on questions of fitness. Araujo is rushing back from a thigh problem. Will he be ready in time? How will the coach judge the performances of Godin in training?
It seemed that Alonso may have been flirting with the idea of playing Damian Suarez as a scurrying, attack minded full-back, and pairing Araujo with Gimenez. But Suarez has gone down injured, and not wanting to take further risks, Alonso has left him out of the squad.
So Araujo could figure at right back. Or he could even tuck inside in a back three. Flanked by Araujo and Gimenez, Godin could operate in reduced space in the middle.
An advantage of playing three centre-backs is that it would seem to be the best way for Uruguay to play two up front. For years now the Suarez-Cavani combination has all but obliged Uruguay to play 4-4-2. But the strongest suit of the current side is the youthful midfield, and they clearly look better with three in the middle — Vecino holds while Rodrigo Bentancur knits the side together and Federico Valverde, now the most important player in the side, is free to drive forward.
But it is hard to play two up front with three in the middle — unless they line up with three centre-backs and use wing backs to supply the width. Fielding two up front also solves another problem for Alonso — what to do if they go with 4-3-3 and only use a single striker? Luis Suarez is the king of the hill, but he is also showing signs of decline, and it might be hard to justify his selection ahead of Darwin Nunez.
Putting this side together is a clear illustration of how in football the ankle bone is connected to the neck bone, since switching one part of the team automatically has an effect on the others. Three at the back, then, might suit Godin at the back, Suarez and Nunez up front — and Diego Alonso as well. Time will tell if it also suits Uruguay’s opponents.